The Chinese, as a culture, are nothing if not determined and able to produce. And by produce, I mean produce anything–and lots of it. Their recent spring to global wine recognition is a reflection of this cultural ambition.
China has leapt onto the world stage in these past few decades in such an enormous way, it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that their interests have not excluded the production of wine. The majesty and, let’s be honest, the enormity of China, has prepped the stage for her wine debut.
China’s wine history actually has obscure origins. In fact, the earliest records reveal perhaps no more than a breath. In 1995, an archaeology team from the Shandong University and Sino-USA found seven clay urns with grape wine remnants, including grape seed dating back to before 4000 BC. Only seven out of two hundred clay urns. Upon these fragile clay pots lie the proof of Chinese grape wine during the Bronze Age, and then, not another whisper of it for centuries.
Years later during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), wine suddenly reemerged. Ironically, poetry may have been what kept the memory of grape wine alive for all those silent centuries. It seems wine and poetry are naturally and eternally entangled.
The Tang poet Wang Han composed the often-recited following lines, and saved wine from disappearing into China’s depths entirely:
“They are about to drink
The finest wine from Evening Radiance cups,
When the sudden sounding of the pipa urges them forth.
Don’t scorn them,
They whom drunken fall upon the battlefield:
In ancient days or now, how many return who go to war?”
Again, just a quiet breath of wine. Where did it come from? Who even bothered to grow grape wine in a country that loved only rice wine and beers? Perhaps in some arid region of the Gansu an idealistic farmer would take time away from his herds and flocks to tend some tangled grape vines and make his own special wine. Perhaps there were villages who would gather together to press grapes in their own ancient tradition, with their hands, to put in clay urns to ferment. However it happened, the wine survived in its own inaudible way, trickling through history with the rest of China’s mass production.
Then a visionary saw the allure. Chang Bishi shook off the centuries thick layers of dust that had settled over Chinese wine. It was time for wine to emerge once again, but this time more powerfully than ever it had before. It is likely that Chang’s career as a businessman and diplomat had taken him overseas where he was introduced to the European’s love of wine (though there is no record of his admitting this.)
In 1892, Chang founded Changyu Pioneer Wine, a winery that still leads the way for Chinese wine in quantity and, more importantly, quality. Chang was determined that to discover true wine, he had to explore the methods of those who knew wine best. He purchased machinery from France, and replaced the clay urns of his culture with oaken barrels from the Americans. Foreign wine specialists were recruited for insight on growth and manufacture. Chinese wine was beginning to come awake again.
Chang’s influence was such that even the government heard the echoes of his wine making ventures, and in the 1960s, shortly following the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, Chairman Mao told the people of China, “make great efforts to develop the grape and wine production. Let the people drink more wine!”
That was all China needed. In the same way energetic, massive they do everything, the Chinese did wine. Grape production was begun en masse.
Now, only a few short decades later, China is now among the top ten wine markets in the world. It’s been listed as the fifth largest wine market. Sales in 2011 were estimated to be 1.6 billion bottles, steadily catching up to the US and France. Between the years 2006 to 2011, Chinese wine experienced a 20% annual growth rate. It’s supposed to increase by another half within the next two years.
And yet, how many of us even knew that China had a wine market? Despite their enormous production, only 10% of their wines find their way out of China at all (90% is consumed by the young population, age 20-30). Of these, very few have been able to achieve the global nod of recognition. China has certainly achieved their goal of quantity. Quality is the new goal on the horizon.
In 2003, the government banned additives to wine that had helped to spur the high production rates. Wineries have begun exploring strategies to improve their quality, and continue to research with the worlds leading vintners how to create the perfect glass. There have even been whispers of organic wineries being opened in the steppe land to the far north.
With literally hundreds of wineries on thousands of acres of Chinese land, they have plenty of opportunity for change. “Within fifty years, there will be wines comparable to that of Bordeaux,” wine connoisseurs have predicted.
It seems we all have great expectations for China.